Words Crush Wednesday; A is for Aias

Published April 1, 2015 by Iphis of Scyros

Words Crush Wednesday collides with the Blogging A-to-Z Challenge!  Which means, I’m afraid, my biggest quote ever.  Because “A” can only stand for Aias of Salamis, bulwark of the Achaians, and my second favorite among the Greek forces at Troy.  (Poor Aias is used to being second, but I wonder if he’d take it as better or worse that in this case he’s second to Patroclos instead of being second to Achilles, like he is in everything else?)

Anyway, here we go!  An enormous chunk of glory for Aias, from Book VII of the Iliad, W.H.D. Rouse translation.  (Some day, I would love to be able to do my own translations for this, but…yeah, that day is a very long way away.  Unless this is actually the Matrix, and someone can download ancient Greek into my head….)  Oh, to set this quote up, Hector has already challenged the Greeks to single combat between himself and a Greek champion of their own choosing, with the assurance to both sides that while the loser’s armor will be forfeit, his body will be returned for proper burial.

Then each man put a mark on his lot, and all the lots were thrown into King Agamemnon’s helmet.  And all the host lifted up their hands to heaven, and prayed, “O Father Zeus!  let Aias win the lot, or Diomedes, or the great King of Mycene himself!”

Gerenian Nestor shook the helmet, and out jumped the lot which they had prayed for, the lot of Aias.  A herald carried it round from left to right, and displayed it to the champions.  Each took a look at it and shook his head; last of all it came to Aias, who held out his hand, and when the lot was dropt in his hand, he knew the mark he had scratched upon it.  Great was his joy! he threw the lot down by his foot, and called out loudly:

“My friends, this is my lot!  I am glad indeed, for I think I shall conquer Prince Hector!  Come along and let me put on my armour!  Then pray all of you to Lord Zeus Cronion, quietly by yourselves, that the enemy may not hear,–or indeed openly, why not?  We fear no man.  No one is strong enough to make me run unless I want to run, and no one is clever enough.  Greenhorns like that are not born and bred in Salamis!”

So they all made their prayer to Zeus Cronion:

“O Father Zeus, throned upon Ida, most glorious and most great!  Grant victory to Aias and high renown!  Or if thou lovest Hector and carest for him, grant equal power and equal glory to both!”

Now Aias armed himself and made ready.  Then he marched out prodigious, like the God of war, when he goes forth to battle among men whom Cronion has pitted against each other in mortal combat.  So terrible was that prodigious man, the safeguard of the nation, as he marched with long strides and a smile on his grim face, shaking his long spear.  This was a joyful sight for his countrymen, but the Trojans felt their limbs tremble, and Hector’s own heart beat fast:  but he could not now retreat or disappear among the crowd, since he was the challenger.  Aias came near, holding that great shield like a tower, seven oxhides with a coating of bronze, which had been made for him by Tychios of Hyle the master armourer:  seven layers of oxhide, I say, the hide of prime bulls, with an eighth of bronze.  That shield Telamonian Aias held before his breast as he stood within reach of Hector, and said in threatening tones:

“Now, Hector, you shall know man to man, you alone and I alone what champions remain among the Danaans even without Achilles lion-heart, manbreaker!  He stays away nursing his grudge against Agamemnon; but we are left to meet you, and not a few.  You begin, sir, and strike first!”

Hector answered:

“Telamonian Aias, my very good lord!  Do not tease me as if I were a feeble boy, or a woman, who knows nothing of the works of war.  I tell you that I know well how to fight and how to kill.  Round to the right of me, round to the left of me, I know well to handle the buckler, trusty shield of seasoned hide!  I know how to charge my chariot into the mellay of galloping mares!  I know well to tread the war-dance when it comes to a stand-up fight!–But I don’t care to use a sly furtive shot at a man such as you are.  Let the world see if I can hit you!”

With these words, he poised the spear and cast.  It struck the great shield full upon the outer bronze, the eighth coat; through six coats the point ran, but held at the seventh.  Then Aias cast his own long spear, and struck Hector’s round buckler; right through it went, and through corselet also.  The blade cut the tunic on Hector’s side, but he swerved and saved his life.  Then both pulled out their spears, and leapt at each other like a couple of lions or wild boars.  Hector struck the middle of the great shield, but he did not pierce the metal, and the point was bent.  Then Aias with a leap pierced the round buckler; the blade went through and cut the neck, so that the red blood bubbled up and Hector staggered back.  But Hector was not finished yet.  He moved back a pace or two and picked up a stone lying on the ground, black, big, and ragged; this he threw and struck the great shield on the boss till the metal rang again.  Aias followed up with a still larger stone, swung it round his head and cast it with all his might.  This great millstone smashed the round buckler inwards, and brought the man down:  he fell on his back huddled under the buckler, but Apollo set him on his feet again.

And now they would have been hard at it, cut and thrust with swords, but suddenly the two heralds came forward, Talthybios from the Trojan side, Idaios from the Argives, who knew well their duty as spokemen in the name of men and gods.  They held their staves between the fighters, and Idaios spoke in solemn words:

“Enough, dear sons, fight no more.  For Zeus Cloudgatherer loves you both, and you are warriors both  that indeed we all know.  Night is now upon us; it is good to give way to Madam Night.”

Telemonian Aias answered and said:

“Then bid Hector give the word; it was he who challenged all comers.  Let him speak first; I am ready to do whatever he may say.”

Hector said:

“Aias, indeed God has given you the stature and strength and skill, and you are the greatest spearman of your nation.  Then for this time let us break off, for this one day; later we will fight again, until fate shall decide between us and give the victory to one or the other.  Now night is upon us, and it is good to give way to Madam Night.  Then you shall comfort all your people, especially your friends and comrades; and I will return to my city to comfort the men and the women of Troy, who will enter the congregation of the gods with thanksgiving for my sake.  But let us each bestow a gift upon the other, that all the world may say–These two fought indeed in bitter combat for a match, but they parted again in friendship.”

Then Hector brought forward and gave his sword with silver knobs, and with it the sheath and well-cut shoulderstrap; Aias offered his girdle brilliant with crimson dye.

Thus they parted, and went each to his own friends.  Glad indeed the Trojans were to see their man returning whole in life and limb, safe from the invincible hands of fiery Aias; glad were the Achaians on their part, when they led Aias back to Agamemnon in the pride of victory.

Possibly the high water mark for Aias, really.  Though the two of them seem to have forgotten about their “parting in friendship” thing when they meet again during the battle by the ships.  (Not that I would have expected them to avoid fighting each other out of friendship, but they’re still doing the usual trash-talking thing.)  It’s worth noting, of course, that–as in this fight–Hector’s survival there, too, is because Apollo helped him recover from an injury that otherwise would have left him dazed long enough for Aias (or his other foes) to finish him off.  So Achilles’ victory over Hector didn’t really prove him to be any more skillful than Aias; it just proved that the gods had stopped interfering to protect Hector.

I love the stuff at the beginning about the lots, though.  As with the letter in the tale of Bellerophon, the poet had to use words like “scratched” because there was not yet a vocabulary to discuss writing.  (Or, at least, if there was, it wasn’t well known enough to be safely included in the poem, because the audience might not have understood it.)  And there’s a certain illiteracy to the proceeding, because even after the winning lot has been picked, they can’t just say “oh, look, it says Aias here” but instead have to show the mark to every one of the contenders (who also included Odysseus, Idomeneus and the lesser Aias) until one of them recognizes the mark he left.

I need to check some other translations, though; why does it say that Talthybios came from the Trojan side?  He’s Spartan!  He works for Menelaos!  He had a cult in Sparta, for cryin’ out loud!  (Seriously, according to Herodotus, at one point the Spartans felt that his spirit had cursed them for mistreating Persian heralds (ones in the employ of Darius, if I recall correctly) and so two Spartans went to Persia to surrender themselves for execution, in order to balance the scales, as it were, and earn Talthybios’ forgiveness.  Though, actually, maybe the curse was more generally felt to be on all Hellenes, because the Athenians had killed the Persian heralds?  Or had both the Athenians and Spartans killed the heralds sent to them?  It’s been just long enough that I’ve forgotten some of the details.  I should check that next time I have a chance…)  Maybe it’s just misleadingly worded, or the heralds were standing in front of the enemy hordes to keep them from advancing and interfering in the duel…?


3 comments on “Words Crush Wednesday; A is for Aias

    • You’ve probably heard of him by his Roman name of Ajax…but that name conjures up images of cleaning products in my mind, so I always use his Greek name. (I probably should have put the Roman one in the post somewhere. I usually do that when I’m going to spend a long time discussing him, but I forgot this time…)

      Liked by 1 person

  • Comments are closed.

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